Cannes Day Ten: The White Ribbon
Posted on Friday May 22, 2009, 18:59 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
Apologies for not updating, but the rigours of Cannes mean that one can either do interviews, see films, or get drunk and do nothing at all. I have, of course, been taking the first option, and although I cannot reveal who with, I can now say with impunity that I now know quite a lot about one of the 20 films in competition, having spoken to pretty much everyone in it or involved in it. In the last 48 hours I've only seen one film: Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. And while tiredness, bad signage in the Palais and pathetic air conditioning conspired to ruin that viewing experience, I think this is a very strong film with a lot of potential to win several of the prizes available on Sunday.
In my semi-official reaction to the film's PR people I described it as The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher as related by The Fast Show's Rowley Birkin QC; it's a sort of pre-WW1 Midsomer Murders mystery in which the crimes are never solved while the seeds of many, many more are sown. I haven't liked Haneke much in the past, and I went into The White Ribbon with low expectations, not because I'm an idiot but because his films aren't usually to my taste. I thought Funny Games (the original) was dull and rather hypocritical. It's like me writing the words “big fat arse” here and then being really disappointed in you for knowing what those words mean (and perhaps even smiling), then bollocking you for having a limited vocabulary and an immature sense of humour.
Cache was OK, but, again, I didn't see the fuss. Wasn't it just the first half of David Lynch's Lost Highway without the gothic metal meltdown? But the beauty of my job is that I get to see things first, uncontaminated by critics, and like every sophisticated gentleman of the world, one of my biggest pleasures in life is being proved wrong. Now, The White Ribbon didn't do that straight off, but the film has a beautiful, brooding quality that combines the fuzzy simplicity of a folk tale and the rich intellectual rigour of a 19th-century Russian novel. People here are already tipping it for the Palme D'Or, and that's partly because, well, they would, wouldn't they? Haneke is a festival darling, he's never won the big one, and has his sometime muse Isabelle Huppert chairing the jury (a cynic might wonder if that appointment was deliberate). Now, after the final credits rolled, I initially thought The White Ribbon hadn't challenged Jane Campion's Bright Star in the Palme stakes. But the more I thought about it, I realised that the film might yet do it. The cinematography is amazing, the performances are all superb, and its artfully scripted evocation of the uncanny is truly masterful. So there we have all the various prizes – directing, script, acting – covered. So why not the big one?
I'm still wrestling with that. The beginning suggests a kind of Village Of The Damned on quaaludes, finding the rural German town of Eichwald falling victim to a series of strange and violent events in a very close community in 1913. First the pastor is hurt in an accident involving his horse and a hidden tripwire, then the wife of a farmworker dies in a fall. From here, the film swirls outwards like a reverse whirlpool, revealing lies, deceit, ambiguity, secrets and intrigues, all within a claustrophobic and often toxic social hierarchy that denies individuality, freedom and growth. It's not giving too much away to say that Haneke withholds many of the pleasures you might expect from a movie (hey, we couldn't even get into his party with invites!). But, for once, this is a film of his that allows you in, not simply to mingle with characters but to feel their pains and pleasures and confusions, while understanding their basic frustrations. Our entry is through the local teacher (Christian Friedel), who courts the local baron's nanny, and the aged recollections of this self-confessed unreliable narrator form the ragged spine of the piece. At two and half hours it's massively long, and it's sometimes tough to keep track of who's who with all those bloody kids, but Haneke keeps a very strict eye on his subtext, creating an epic, often beautiful drama about responsibility and evil, with a steady pulse of pure human evil that, like Alan Moore's From Hell, wonders aloud if the horrors of world wars one and two were not just political in origin but a macabre and inevitable manifestation of the human psyche itself.
Work pressures mean I have not yet seen The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus (we're eyeing up the 12pm screening tomorrow), and as for Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void, hopefully I'll be at the screening at 5-ish, ready for an early evening verdict. And with that, I leave you with my predictions. I'll lay off too much Palme speculation for the minute, but I think The White Ribbon is in the frame, along with Bright Star, A Prophet and the Almodovar (Broken Embraces). Tarantino is strong for prizes in the writing, directing and acting stakes, as is Jacques Audiard, for A Prophet. And I'll chuck a weird one in here: maybe Antichrist get a goodie bag too. But, still, it's only Friday afternoon and I haven't had chance to hear any of the Croisette gossip from today...